Global Investing

Dollar drags emerging local debt into red

Victims of the dollar’s strength are piling up.

Total returns on emerging market local currency bonds dipped into the red for the first time this year, according to data from JPMorgan which compiles the flagship GBI-EM global diversified index of domestic emerging debt. While the EMBI Global index of sovereign dollar debt has already taken a hit the rise in U.S. yields, local bonds’ problems are down to how EM currencies are performing against the dollar.

JPMorgan points out that while bond returns in local currency terms, from carry and duration, are a decent 1 percent, that has been negated by the 1.3 percent loss on the currency side. With the dollar on the rampage of late  (it’s up almost 4 percent in 2013 against a grouping of major world currencies) that’s unsurprising. But a closer look at the data reveals that much of the loss is down to three underperforming markets — South Africa, Hungary and Poland. These have dragged down overall returns even though Asian and Latin American currencies have done quite well.

The graphic below shows South African local debt bringing up the bottom of the table, with the FX component of returns at around minus 9 percent  In rand terms however the return is still in positive territory, but only just. Hungary and Poland fare only slightly better.

Many bond positions are of course hedged. But as we wrote here yesterday  in an article on South Africa, escalating currency weakness can trigger exits from local bond markets.  And worryingly, JPMorgan notes that returns in local currency terms have plateaued at 1 percent over the past 10 days.

Using sterling to buy emerging markets

Sterling looks likely to be one of this year’s big G10 currency casualties (the other being  yen).  Having lost 7 percent against the dollar and 5.5 percent to the euro so far this year on fear of a British triple-dip recession, sterling probably has further to fall.  (see here for my colleague Anirban Nag’s take on sterling’s outlook).

Many see an opportunity here — as a convenient funding currency to invest in emerging markets. A funding currency requires low interest rates that can bankroll purchases of higher-yielding assets including stocks, other currencies, bonds and commodities. Sterling ticks those boxes.  A funding  currency must also not be subject to any appreciation risk for the duration of the trade. And here too, sterling appears to win, as the Bank of England’s remit widens to give it more leeway on monetary easing.

All in all, it’s a better option than the U.S. dollar, which was most used in recent years, or the pre-crisis favourite of the Swiss franc, says Bernd Berg, head of emerging FX strategy at Credit Suisse Private Bank.

Cyprus: don’t line up the dominoes

By Stephen Eisenhammer

Over the past few years we’ve become used to the global economy resting on a knife-edge. So when dramatic events like the levy on bank deposits in Cyprus happen we wait for the dominoes to fall. Two days on we’re still waiting…

The recovery in the euro zone, so vital to Europe’s emerging markets,  is undoubtedly fragile but the incident in Cyprus doesn’t seem to be enough to knock it all down now that the European Central Bank seems willing to step in if borrowing rates go to high.

Overall, this should not be read as a game-changer for the global markets but more as background noise creating indeed some volatility, on top of the uncertainty created after the Italian elections - Societe Generale.

Weekly Radar: Dollar building steam?

FOMC/FRANCO-GERMAN SUMMIT/GERMAN-FRENCH-SPAIN AUCTIONS/GLOBAL FLASH PMIS FOR MARCH/UK BUDGET-JOBS-CPI-BOE MINS/ICC HEARING ON KENYATTA/SAFRICA RATES

       The revved-up U.S. dollar – whose trade-weighted index is now up almost 5 percent in just six weeks – could well develop into one of the financial market stories of the year as the cyclical jump the United States has over the rest of G10 combines with growing attention being paid to the country’s potential “re-industrialisation”. As with all things FX, there’s a zillion ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ to the argument. Chief among them is many people’s assumption the Fed will be printing greenbacks well after this expansion takes hold as it targets a much lower jobless rate. Others doubt the much-vaunted return of the US Inc. back down the value chain into metal-bashing and manufacturing, while some feel the cheaper energy from the shale revolution and the lower structural trade deficits that promises will be short-lived as others catch up. However, with the dollar already super competitive (it’s down 30-40 percent on the Fed’s inflation-adjusted index over the past 10 years) the first set of arguments are more tempting. Even if you see the merits in both sides, the bull case clearly has not yet been discounted and may have further to go just to match the balance of risks.  With Fed printing presses still on full throttle, this has been a slow burner to date and it may be a while yet before it gets up a head of steam — many feel it’s still more of a 2nd half of 2013 story and the dollar index needs to get above last year’s highs to get people excited. But if it does keep motoring, it has a potentially dramatic impact on the investment landscape and not necessarily a benign one, even if shifting correlations and the broader macro landscape show this is not the ‘stress trade’ of the short-lived dollar bounces of the past five years.

Commodities priced in dollars could well feel the heat from a steady dollar uptrend. And if gold’s spiral higher over the past six years has been in part due to the “dollar debasement” trade, then its recent sharp retreat may be less puzzling . Emerging market currencies pegged to the dollar will also feel the pressure as well as countries and companies who’ve borrowed heavily in greenbacks. The prospect of a higher dollar also has a major impact on domestic US investors willingness to go overseas, casting questions on countries with big current account gaps. As the dominant world reserve currency, a rising dollar effectively tightens financial conditions for everyone else and we’ve been used to a weakening one for a very long time.

Turning water into gold in China

By Stephen Eisenhammer

Rivers of gold? Maybe not, but there can be money to be made in Chinese water systems.

With the world’s largest population rapidly moving from the countryside to the city, Chinese water supplies are becoming horribly polluted and the companies wading in to clean and purify them are set to benefit.

Investors are taking an interest in water cleaning companies which are supported by the Chinese government as the country attempts to avoid a dawning crisis.

Here comes the real

Inflation is finally biting Brazilian policymakers. The real strengthened around 1.5 percent last week without triggering the usual shrill outcries from government ministers. Nor did the central bank intervene in the currency market even though the real is the best performing emerging currency this year. The bank in fact shifted towards a more hawkish policy stance during its March meeting, a move that seems to have had the blessing of the government.

Friday’s data showed the benchmark consumer price index, IPCA,   up 0.6 percent for a year-on-year inflation rate of 6.31 percent. President Dilma Rousseff, who faces elections next year, took to the airwaves soon after to reassure voters about her commitment to taming inflation, announcing a series of tax cuts. That effectively is a signal that there is now no political constraint on raising interest rates. According to the political risk consultancy, Eurasia:

If the government doesn’t enact measures during the first half of this year to anchor inflationary expectations, Rousseff would run one of two risks. She would either run the risk of inflation starting to eat into the disposable income of families in a manner that could hurt her politically, or relatedly, put the central bank in a position of having to raise interest rates more aggressively later in the year to control inflation with more negative repercussions to growth.

Emerging Policy-”Full stop” in Poland but a start in Mexico?

An action-packed week for emerging monetary policy.

First we had Poland stunning markets with a half-point rate cut when only 25 bps was priced. Governor Marek Belka said the double-cut marked a “full stop”  after several cuts.  Then came Brazil which kept rates on hold at 7.25 but turned hawkish after spending over 18 months in dovish mode. (Rates stayed on hold in Indonesia and Malaysia).

In Brazil, it was high time. Inflation and inflation expectations have been rising for a while, the yield curve has been steepening and anxiety has grown, not only about the central bank”s commitment to controlling inflation but also about its independence.  Whether the central bank will actually start a hiking cycle anytime soon is another matter. Barclays reckon it will, predicting three consecutive 50 bps rate hikes starting from April. But analysts at Societe Generale are among those who are betting on flat rates for now. They point out that since the meeting, the Brazilian yield curve has moved to its flattest in a year and the 2017 inflation breakevens (the difference between the yields on fixed-rate and inflation-linked bonds of similar maturity) have fallen more than 50bps:

This implies that simply by showing a small amount of vigilance, a great deal of structural inflation concerns seem to have dissipated.

Ratings more than a piece of paper for Africa

By Stephen Eisenhammer

Does a sovereign credit rating from a glass tower in London or New York impact life in the country being rated? Apparently in Africa it does.

According to research by the rating agency Fitch, sovereign credit ratings significantly boost foreign direct investment (FDI) to Africa.

Credit ratings added 2 percent to Gross Domestic Product in sub-Saharan Africa each year from 1995 to 2011 through increased  FDI when compared to countries in the region which do not have a rating, Fitch said in a note.

Time running out for Hungarian bonds?

Could Hungary’s run of good luck be about to end?

Despite controversial policies, things have gone the country’s way in recent months — the easing euro crisis and abundant global liquidity saw investors flock to high-yield emerging markets such as Hungary and also allowed it to tap international capital for a $3.25 billion bond. It has slashed interest rates seven times straight, cutting them this week to a record low 5.25 percent. The result is an increased reliance on international bond investors. Foreigners’ share of the Budapest bond market  is almost 50 percent, among the highest percentages in emerging markets.

But analysts at Unicredit write that both markets and economic data had validated rate cuts in 2012, which may not be the case any more. Annual headline inflation fell from 6.6% in September 2012 to 3.7% in January 2013 while the economy contracted 1.7% last year. As a result, net foreign buying of Hungarian bonds rose  in the second half of 2012 to 837 billion forints (an average daily rate of almost 6 billion forints), they note.  Markets are pricing at least 3 more cuts, that will take the rate to 4.5 percent.

But support from foreigners is ebbing. Since the beginning of the year, Unicredit points out, foreign investors have cut holdings of government bonds by 236.8 billion forints (average daily outflow of 6.1 billion forints). Moreover, the most recent rate cuts have failed to fully translate into bond yield corrections, they say.  While the short-dated 2-5 year segment of the curve dropped 23-40 basis points, the belly (the middle) of the curve dipped by only 9-24 bps and longer-dated yields over 10 years have risen by around 18 bps. And the fall in inflation too could be a thing of the past if the government resorts to tax hikes in order to meet the deficit target of 2.7% of GDP  — that would persuade the European Union to lift the excessive deficit procedure it has triggered against Hungary for repeated budget deficit overshoots.

Twenty years of emerging bonds

Happy birthday EMBI! The index group, the main benchmark for emerging market bond investors, turns 20 this year.  When officially launched on Dec 31 1993, the world was a different place. The Mexican, Asian and Russian financial crises were still ahead, as was Argentina’s $100 billion debt default. The euro zone didn’t exist, let alone its debt crisis. Emerging debt was something only the most reckless investors dabbled in.

To mark the upcoming anniversary, JPMorgan – the owner of the indices – has published some interesting data that shows how the asset class has been transformed in the past two decades.  In 1993:
- The emerging debt universe was worth just $422 billion, the EMBI Global had 14 sovereign bonds in it with a market capitalisation of $112 billion.
- The average credit rating on the index was BB.
- Public debt-to-GDP was almost 100 percent back then for emerging markets, compared to 69 percent for developed markets.
- Forex reserves for EMBI countries stood at $116 billion
- Per capita annual GDP for index countries was less than $3000.
Now fast forward 20 years:
- The emerging debt universe is close to $10 trillion, there are 55 countries in the EMBIG index and the market capitalisation of the three main JPM indices has swollen to $2.7 trillion.
- The EMBIG has an average Baa3 credit rating (investment grade) with 62 percent of its market cap investment-grade rated.
- Public debt is now 34 percent of GDP on average in emerging markets, while developed world debt ratios have ballooned to 119 percent of GDP.
- Forex reserves for EMBIG members stand at $6.1 trillion
- Per capita annual income has risen 2.5 times to $7,373.

What next? The thinking at JPM seems to be that the day is not far off when a country “graduates” from the EMBI and joins the developed world.  To be excluded from the EMBI group of indices, a country’s gross national income must exceed the bank’s “index income ceiling” (calculated using World Bank methodology) for three years in a row or have a sovereign credit rating of A3/A- for three consecutive years.